- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2000

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel Tens of thousands of Israelis living near the Lebanon border huddled in underground shelters or fled south out of rocket range yesterday, fearing reprisals by Lebanese guerrillas for the heaviest Israeli bombardment in eight months.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered a military state of emergency along the border, a sign that Israel was preparing for extended fighting. Hezbollah guerrillas yesterday killed an Israeli soldier the sixth in two weeks only hours after Israeli air strikes cut electricity across parts of Lebanon.

"In all that is connected with the protection of our people, our settlements and our soldiers, we will do everything required," Mr. Barak told residents of Kiryat Shemona who had spent the night in shelters.

In its second night of attacks, Israel's air force struck Hezbollah offices in the coastal city of Tyre and the guerrilla stronghold of Iqlim al-Tuffah, Lebanese security officials said. At least two persons were wounded.

The Israeli army confirmed the two attacks on Iqlim al-Tuffah, but identified the other target as a Hezbollah radar station.

Israeli leaders blamed Syria for the latest flare-up and said peace talks will not resume with Damascus until it ends the wave of Lebanese guerrilla attacks. Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon, and Israel says it encourages the violence.

The air strikes "signal that … the continuation of Hezbollah action with Syrian encouragement and Lebanese government praise, must be stopped," said Mr. Barak's foreign minister, David Levy.

Syria's state media warned that the bombing could hurt the peace process.

"Bombs and missiles are actually striking the already stalled peace process and destroying all prospects of peace in the region," the English-language Syria Times said.

The air strikes early yesterday destroyed three power stations at Jamhour near Beirut, in the northern mountains east of the port city of Tripoli and in the eastern Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek, a Hezbollah guerrilla stronghold where a base for the group also was targeted. The base remained sealed, and damage could not be assessed.

Fifteen civilians were wounded in Baalbek and were treated at hospitals for various injuries from broken glass, debris and shrapnel. Parts of Lebanon were left without electricity and severe rationing was imposed.

The air strikes were the harshest since a similar strafing by the outgoing hard-line government, just before Mr. Barak took office in July.

The escalation in attacks on Israeli troops staffing a buffer zone in Lebanon's south coincided with the collapse in Syrian-Israel peace in mid-January.

Syria wants a prior commitment from Israel that it will withdraw from the disputed Golan Heights before talks ensue; Israel refuses, and says the resumption of violence is a crude effort to get Israel to cave in.

Mr. Barak was getting closer to playing his own card against Syria a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon that would leave Syria without its single most effective method of pressuring Israel, and would raise uncomfortable questions about the presence of 30,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon.

"If we will not reach an agreement [with Syria] in the next two months, I believe I know that the Israel government will meet and decide if we will withdraw unilaterally," said Cabinet minister Haim Ramon, a Barak confidant. Mr. Ramon is in favor of a unilateral pullout, and says most other ministers are as well.

While such talk could influence a Syria that is eager to end its international isolation, it will have little influence on the Hezbollah.

Should the violence torpedo the peace, that would sit well with a militant group that opposes the very existence of the Jewish state. Should it hasten a withdrawal with or without peace talks Hezbollah, seeking to expand its political influence, would claim credit as the force that drove the occupiers south.

With that win-win prospectus, the guerrillas showed no sign of holding back.

Yesterday, their rockets hit an Israeli military outpost at Dabshe, two miles north of the Israeli border, killing one soldier. A pro-Israeli militiaman was later wounded in a separate guerrilla attack on the Bir Kallab outpost in southern Lebanon. He died later in the day.

The prospect of the rockets reaching Israel prompted Mr. Barak's announcement, through broadcast media, of a 48-hour state of emergency. That meant residents who stayed north were required to spend the night in shelters some hardly livable and equipped with mildew-soaked mattresses that had not been replaced in years.

Many headed south rather than face another night in the bowels of their apartment buildings. Rachel Ben-Sultan, surrounded by four bulging suitcases at the Kiryat Shemona bus station, said she was fed up with repeated emergencies after 43 years in the city.

"If these attacks go on intensively, we will leave. We will go to a place that has peace and quiet," she said before boarding a bus to stay with her daughter in a town several miles southwest. "We cannot go on like this."

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